- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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The last time Nebraska took on a ranked Big Ten contender, things didn't end so well. The Cornhuskers, of course, got spanked 48-17 at Wisconsin in their official league debut.
So you can imagine the reaction when the players returned home from last week's game at Minnesota in time to catch the end of Michigan State's win over those same Badgers.
"I think we all kind of realized what we've got ahead of us this week," defensive end Cameron Meredith said.
The Huskers, though, think they're better equipped to deal with their next Big Ten challenge when the No. 11 Spartans come into Memorial Stadium on Saturday. That Wisconsin loss caused lots of second-guessing and criticism of the team and quarterback Taylor Martinez in particular. Nebraska then fell behind 27-6 at home against Ohio State in its next game out before mounting a huge comeback to beat the Buckeyes and to possibly save their season.
"We rallied around each other," offensive lineman Marcel Jones said. "We told ourselves that we're better than what we showed the country. I feel that we've come together a lot closer since then, and we've been able to overcome adversity. We learned not to panic, and that if we keep steering the course we'll be just fine."
The Cornhuskers need to bring their best effort this week, because they can't afford a loss and still realistically hope to win the Legends Division. Michigan State is already one game ahead of Nebraska in the standings, and if the Huskers lose Saturday, they'd need the Spartans to lose two more times just to have a chance to tie for the division lead. And Nebraska still must play at Michigan and Penn State this season. That's why receiver Kenny Bell called this a must-win this week.
Others have stopped short of applying that label to this game, but there's little doubt about its importance. The Huskers, after all, are the only Big Ten team used to how division play works from their Big 12 days.
"We understand what have we ahead of us and the opportunity," Meredith said. "We can't go too all-in to the hype, but we do understand what's on the line. Coach [Bo Pelini] has emphasized and made it real noticeable that this is a very important game, but we're still preparing just as we have all season."
Michigan State is led by its ferocious defense, a formula Nebraska was supposed to utilize this season. The Blackshirts, though, have been disappointing and now lack the services of defensive tackle Jared Crick, who's out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Meredith said he saw improvement during the team's bye week two weeks ago as the team focused on fundamentals. The Huskers allowed only 14 points and 254 yards to Minnesota last week while scoring a defensive touchdown, but the Gophers are hardly a worthy measuring stick this year.
One thing that might help the defense is that the Spartans don't have a running quarterback. Nebraska has faced a lot of mobile signal-callers this season, including Washington's Keith Price, Wisconsin's Russell Wilson, Ohio State's Braxton Miller and even Minnesota's MarQueis Gray. Kirk Cousins isn't likely to burn the Blackshirts with a long scramble or deep pass on the run.
"He's a great football player, but he's more of a pocket passer," Meredith said. "That should allow us to rush the passer a little more freely."
On the flip side, the Huskers offense hopes to slow down Michigan State's aggressive defense with Martinez and Rex Burkhead. The Spartans will have to focus on containing the edge, especially when Nebraska goes to its option plays. And with a no-huddle offense and a deep rotation of offensive linemen, perhaps the home team can wear out Jerel Worthy and the other Michigan State defensive linemen.
"It's very important to bring in fresh legs," Jones said. "We come at the defense with wave after wave."
Nebraska had better perform a whole lot better than it did in its last test against a ranked Big Ten team. Or else it can probably wave its league title hopes goodbye.
1dMax Olson and Jake Trotter